Venezuelans vote amid allegations of fraud against Nicolas Maduro
Opposition urges citizens to take part in referendum to push demands for new vote
Venezuela's congressional election on Sunday will almost certainly give President Nicolas Maduro control over the country's last major independent institution, but it will do little to improve his image at home and abroad.
Maduro, who already has the loyalty of the courts, the military, prosecutors and other institutions, seeks to load the National Assembly with members of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. Critics say he's guaranteed that by rigging the system to smother the last remnants of democracy in Venezuela.
An opposition coalition led by U.S.-backed politician Juan Guaido is boycotting the vote. The European Union, the United States and several other nations have already declared the vote a sham.
"The truth cannot be hidden," Guaido said in a videotaped message, noting the apparent low voter turnout. "The majority of Venezuela turned its back on the fraud that began months ago."
Despite Venezuela's political turmoil, voting took place with no apparent problems in Caracas, where polling places were operated by civilian militia members and armed soldiers alongside election workers.
The Supreme Court — loyal to Maduro — this year appointed a new elections commission, including three members who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada, without participation of the opposition-led Congress, as the law requires. The court also took over three leading opposition parties, appointing new leaders the opposition accuses of conspiring to support Maduro.
François-Philippe Champagne, Canada's foreign affairs minister, said Ottawa doesn't recognize the results of the electoral process because it "did not meet the minimum conditions for a free and fair exercise of democracy."
"Free and fair elections can only occur when democratic rights are fully respected," Champagne said in a statement. "We continue to call for a peaceful democratic transition and for free and fair presidential elections."
Guaido's opposition movement is holding a referendum over several days after the election. It will ask Venezuelans whether they want to end Maduro's rule and hold new presidential elections.
It's unclear whether either side's vote will draw the masses, as neither Maduro nor Guaido are popular among Venezuelans as the nation's economic and political crisis deepens despite its vast oil reserves.
The South American nation is caught in a deepening political and economic crisis, despite holding the world's largest oil reserves.
More than five million people have fled the country in recent years, the world's largest migration after war-torn Syria. The International Monetary Fund projects a 25 per cent decline this year in Venezuela's GDP, while hyperinflation diminishes the value of its currency, the bolivar.
Election 'a fraud and a sham,' Pompeo says
The election comes amid uncertainty over the impending change of the U.S. administration. Like outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump, president-elect Joe Biden has called Maduro a "dictator," though it's unclear what approach he'll take toward Venezuela's crisis.
Maduro, the hand-picked successor to the late president Hugo Chavez, won a second term in 2018. But his political adversaries and several nations, including the U.S., reject his legitimacy after he banned the most popular challengers.
Guaido, 37, vowed to oust 58-year-old Maduro early last year after becoming head of the National Assembly. The Trump administration led dozens of nations in support of Guaido.
Washington hit Maduro and his political allies with sanctions, and the U.S. Justice Department has indicted Maduro as a "narco-terrorist," offering a $15 million US reward for his arrest.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Sunday's election was fraudulent. "The results announced by the illegitimate Maduro regime will not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people," he said on Twitter. "What's happening today is a fraud and a sham, not an election."
Maduro remains in power with backing from Venezuela's military and international support from countries such as Iran, Russia, China and Cuba. Maduro's domestic allies also control the top court, prosecutor's office and elections commission.
International bodies such as the European Union have refused to send observers to Sunday's election, saying the conditions for a democratic process don't exist.
Maduro's government invited sympathetic international observers: former presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Others included a group of men who identified themselves as Turkish lawmakers.